Why Is Street Photography So Predominantly Black & White . . ?

. . . This article came about as the result of a question set by Stephan Handuwala, a visitor to the Street Photography Blog and posted on Chester – Street Photography Escape From The City. Thank you Stephan . . .

. . . As Stephan had asked, why are street photographs generally black & white? His question got me thinking and to tell you the truth, I was stumped for a simple answer..

Even a swift ‘Image’ search on Google for the term ‘Street Photography’ will bring up a raft of black & white photographs, garnered from the works of photographers from all corners of the globe, both professional and amateur. A quick count of the images reveals that of each group of ten pictures, approximately one of them will be in color.

So why is this?

Speaking from a personal point of view based on twenty years experience and being a hungry follower of the genre and it’s rich history, that’s the way it’s always been, right?

After all, the only practical medium available to our branch of photography since the circa 1900’s to 1960’s was black & white film. Sure color film was available much earlier than this, but its ‘speed’ (ISO) had been so slow as to make the movement of people impossible to freeze. The lengthy exposure times needed to capture the ‘impression’ that a human figure ever existed, meant they registered as blurs or failed to materialize at all.

It was only after color technology caught up with black & white, that photographers such as William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz were able to fully explore it’s artistic potential and more importantly, in a ‘real’ environment rather than the studio.

But how can this possibly be an excuse in today’s digital age? After all, we now have cameras with such high ISO and image capabilities, they can almost take a picture in near darkness, without a flash.

There must be more to black & white than just tradition or necessity and for me it’s called ‘Structure’ and ‘Texture’.

A color photograph is a non-discriminating beast. Reds, greens, yellows, blues, day-glow-pink. Every detail of a scene is captured with equal importance and equal hierarchy.

As an example, let’s assume we want to take a color photograph of a pedestrian stood at a zebra-crossing on a street corner. The main point of interest is the subject’s incredible and eye catching tattoos. Nothing else about the person is noteworthy or out of the ordinary. In the background is a line of differently colored cars waiting at the red and green traffic lights and a colorful building with shop windows full of the latest (and also colorful) fashions.

Now take a look at our imaginary masterpiece. What element of the picture is the main focal point? Is it the shop windows? They are the largest and most colorful part of the picture and it’s such a shame someone’s stood in front of them, blocking our view. Or maybe it’s the building or the cars?

Let’s take it one step further by using as an example an image that is widely acknowledged to be the greatest and most defining Street photograph of all time – Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Behind the Gare St. Lazar’. Or as I like to call it, ‘Man Jumping Over Puddle’. 🙂

Presented here under the terms of Fair Use.

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Now if you will, imagine that Monsieur Cartier-Bresson had on that day been carrying a Leica loaded with color film.

The sky was an unusually clear and vibrant blue. The billboard in the background displayed an equally colorful and vibrant advertisement for a railway company. The man in the picture is actually a factory worker who is wearing a reflective day-glow-yellow jacket and trousers, and was hurriedly trying to make his way back to work as the paint factory he is employed at had suffered a catastrophic disaster, hence the large ‘lake’ of fluorescent pink paint he is attempting to jump over.

And there is the predicament. With such a wide variety of colors to choose from, the eye struggles to decipher the main intent and message of the picture which now becomes instead, one concerning the immense ‘sea’ of color. One can only imagine if it were true, that the photograph would have become known as ‘Industrial Accident Behind The Gare St. Lazar’?

Obviously these are extreme examples. It would be rare to find such highly saturated scenes in everyday life, but it highlights the problem of emphasizing to the viewer the original intention of the photograph. The entire scene becomes the picture.

Which brings us to the next reason that black & white is so popular. Color photography is very difficult to do well.

As if it wasn’t hard enough to find and capture your subject (or subjects) AND wait until they’re in just the right position AND in the best pose etc, we now have this extra ‘dimension’ of color to factor in. Will that big swath of color in the background clash with or even camouflage the intended target? What if other unrelated elements in the scene inadvertently take priority in the eye of the viewer? There can’t be anything worse than presenting an image that you intended to be about a Clown, only for the viewer to comment on how nice the Circus Big Top is?

The simplicity of black & white therefore, is that without this distraction and with the added benefit of shallow depth of field, the subject can be clearly brought to the forefront or singled out within the picture.

As previously mentioned, black & white intensifies the structure and texture of a subject, whether it be a person, a building or a stretch of crazy paving.

Facial features such as wrinkles become roughly ‘chiseled’ chunks and lines of dark contrast. Outlines become more clearly defined. Cracks in pavements, dirty walls and litter become atmospheric props. With the lens wide-open and the resulting narrow depth of field, the otherwise distracting background becomes an unnoticeable but pleasing swirl of nothingness.

Finally and where film photographers are concerned at least, processing your own color film is expensive. Obviously there’s nothing stopping you handing your precious rolls to a local or online shop, but this removes the element of control that the dedicated artist craves. Often the results can be haphazard to put it politely.

Self-Processing color film is (compared to black & white) a far more involved exercise. The temperatures required of the various chemicals is much higher, requiring special equipment to maintain a consistent level throughout. The times of each stage must be scientifically adhered to and none of the chemicals can be used again, unlike with black & white.

Ultimately and where I’m concerned at least, all of my photographs are black & white because I like it. Black and white street photography is about a single point of interest. Color on the other hand is about an entire scene.

There’s a quote by award winning Leica photographer Alejandro Cegarra that sums it up rather nicely. “Black & White is drawing, Color is painting”.

Author: Kevin Shelley

Street Photography. eBooks. Blog. Shoots and reviews cameras. Develops film. Writes novelesque articles.

8 thoughts on “Why Is Street Photography So Predominantly Black & White . . ?”

  1. An excellent description of the subject Kevin. Another area of this discussion is the human eye/brain interaction. Your comment “A color photograph is a non-discriminating beast. Reds, greens, yellows…” is an indication also of the fact that our eyes see and then our brains interpret, and what we then “see” has become, to us, “real” colour. However colour film, from the early stuff through the various Kodak, Agfa, movie Technicolor, etc variations, all have their own different interpretations of colour. Having studied HCB’s writings, I think this is what he was getting at. There is a colour picture of his of fruit/veg. in a market, which shows this well. I can’t see a time when technology will match the brain interpretation (unless it all gets fed back through the brain in future!) so all continues to look “false” to the photographer’s eye.

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    1. Hi Richard,

      Thank you and pleased you enjoyed the post.

      As you’ve pointed out though, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than my brief summary shows.

      That’s an excellent point you make about the difference between how film and the brain interprets color.

      Maybe there needs to be a part 2 and I’ve often dabbled with the idea of inviting ‘guest writers’?

      What do you think?

      Kev

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  2. Interesting piece Kevin, I believe a number of reasons exist for the strong following of B&W images by street togs. The first and most depressing reason is that many shooters appear to be stuck in homage mode to HCB and the nostalgia this era represents, street photography does appear to improve with age but it gets even better when its innovative and that does not necessarily mean colour. Monochrome images are viewed by many as artistic while highly saturated colour images created by artists like Martin Parr are described by some as dead pan or snap shot aesthetic. Monochrome images simplify what are quite complex scenes in street photography and make it easier for the viewer to appreciate shape and form not to mention texture without having to compete with colour. I still shoot B&W myself but I believe that colour is the medium of our time as it presents different challenges for togs, the thought of representing the 21st century with a monochrome medium does not sit well with me. It is time we shook off the influence of HCB and others who influenced
    SP forever with simple kit and an artists eye, we have a responsibility to move things on or we will become as relevant as an Elvis convention.

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    1. Hi David,

      Don’t get me wrong, color is a very current, relevant and strong force in SP today, with it’s own considerable history and something I have a great deal of time but no talent for.

      However I’m certain even Martin Parr would be the first to agree that for color (and himself), it’s been an uphill struggle when he recalls how he only got into Magnum by one vote? His shot of the guy eating a bacon butty is a classic, if slightly disgusting and ‘Boring’ achieved Martin’s aim of being err . . . boring.

      I don’t think it’s fair to say that b&w street photographers (at least not all of them) are stuck or influenced by the past, in the same way it’s unfair to say a fan of the Beatles is stuck in the 60’s and has no time for modern music or the owner of an old VW Camper (such as myself) has his head in the sand and can’t appreciate a modern version (though a modern one would struggle to beat the MPG). 🙂

      It’s interesting that you use an Elvis analogy considering that he’s now more popular (and wealthy), than when he was alive?

      Cheers,

      Kevin

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  3. Great idea about guest writers Kevin. In terms of the influence of people like HCB I don’t see it as needing shaking off, more that we should recognise that we “stand on the shoulders off the giants” and yet do our own thing. We don’t have to be influenced by any of them, but like all artistic progressions often what they did allows us to do what we do. That’s enough clever talk for me today I’m off for a cool pint of bitter.

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  4. Fully concur, Kevin.
    Put it simply, there’s very few Saul Leiters or David Alan Harveys out there. When you find one (and I don’t include in there Martin Parr, his is definitely not my kind of photography), you must stand up, take your hat off, and curtsey, because mastering color is absolutely difficult.
    But at the risk of being called a chicken escaping the challenge, I am in the BW camp too. The essentiality of a BW image, the nuances of the greys (ok, unless your name is Moriyama or Klein!), the timelessness of it all.
    Take care.
    Giovanni

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    1. Hi Bent,

      Yes it’s a subject that doesn’t get written about that often.

      I suppose photography articles are like buses – you wait for ages, then two come along at once? 😀

      Small world.

      I’ve allowed the link.

      Cheers,

      Kevin

      Like

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